Wednesday, April 8, 2009

All Together Separate

I wish I would have taken a picture for you, but I'll just try to describe it.

I parked my van on the northbound side of Hwy 65 in Telogia, Fl, the epitome of rural life in the Florida panhandle. Walking around the brick "Telogia Assembly of God" sign near the road, I made my way through a small field of cars parked on the church lawn to the old white church building. I waved to my brothers and sisters in Christ--some who I knew, some that I didn't, but they all greeted me with a smile. A set of plain white double doors under a small portico marked the entrance to the simple sanctuary. As I opened the right hand side of the double doors, I entered what seemed to be about a 5x7ft. foyer packed with men who smelled like aftershave; men with firm handshakes; men with warm smiles. I greeted the hosting pastor, Thomas Adams; he was delighted to have me. Noticing brother Victor Walsh, pastor of First Baptist Church of Bristol, I grabbed his hand, shook it, and gave him a brotherly hug. Nobody, makes you feel appreciated like brother Coy Collins of Pentecostal Holiness Church of Bristol, so I made my way over to him--a stout man with a clean shaven head. He extended his hand, hugged me, and said, in the way only a down-to-earth pentecostal preacher from Bristol, FL could, "Good to see you, brother; how was your trip." (My family and I had just returned from vacation.)

The sanctuary was a room about 20x20ft, plus a stage up front. There was quite a bit of wood trim, and "wood" paneling spanned the walls. Wood pews, with red cushions. The ceiling was low. The room was packed. One of those old hymn/attendance/offering boards that all churches must have had in the 50s & 60s informed that last week's attendance was 15 and this week's was 16. It looked to me like all 15 people--not including the keyboard player--were siting behind the pulpit, in the choir section. Brother Adams must have been ecstatic to have a full house that Monday night. He took the microphone--it was just about 7:00 p.m.--and commenced with the encouraging, confident, passionate speech that often characterized these old community revivals in rural towns across America not all that long ago. Well, I should say, they were common sometime before I was born, but not so long ago that people in Liberty Co. didn't know what was about to happen.

I'm a proud member of the Liberty Co. Ministerial Association. I'm mostly proud, not because of what we accomplish as an association--though we do accomplish some good things,--but mostly because of the sense of camaraderie that exists between myself and my United Methodist, Southern Baptist, Pentecostal Holiness, Church of God (Cleveland), and Assembly of God brothers. Oh, and one Sister from the Church of God of Prophecy--an African-American congregation. We didn't always have this sense of cooperation and concern for one another in the association, but eventually love and a desire to honor Jesus above ourselves won the day.

The idea for the Holy Week revival came out of one of those monthly meetings at Appalachee Restaurant in Bristol. It was decided that a different congregation would host the revival each night of the Holy week, and that one of the preachers from another church would stand in the pulpit to deliver the message that God laid on his heart to speak. Naturally there was some apprehension at first, but, now in its 3rd year, this revival has done more to bring unity among the churches of Liberty Co. than any other event or service project we've undertaken so far. Somehow, in part because of these revival services, churches have set aside a sense of competition for the souls of Liberty Co. and replaced it with a sense of mutual respect--even if its mainly among the pastors of those churches--and common concern for those who do not know Jesus Christ. When I had the privilege of speaking on Tuesday night last year, I felt the need to make the following comment, "Lets not pretend that there aren't major theological differences among us in this room tonight. The names on our signs in front of our church buildings mean something. I'm not naive enough to ignore that fact. But we can all agree tonight, that there is one Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, the one name under heaven, given to humanity by which we must be saved." Obviously there were no Unitarians in the room that night :)

So, in that spirit Brother Adams, began to lead us in a few simple choruses, which we all knew. I love to sing with my friends at the Telogia Assembly of God; they know how to get down. There was a lot of hand clappin', and we stood far longer than anyone in our church would have allowed for, and certainly longer than the Baptist lady standing next to me was comfortable with. There were no words on a screen. We didn't even use hymnals, at first. We just sang choruses that we grew up singing; songs of praise to our God and Savior. Then we broke out the hymnals and sang all the verses, all the parts (harmonies). After some heartfelt prayer, Jeff Gardner of Lake Mystic Baptist Church got behind the pulpit and delivered a convicting message about repentance, holiness, and revival. I'd heard this essential message before; most of who were at that service us had, but I was challenged and inspired as I heard it again Monday night. Jeff's words were uplifting and convicting at the same time. Then we sang some more. It sounded like something you'd hear on an old recording of church gatherings from ages past. For younger readers, it was something like the bluegrass track, "I Saw the Light" on David Crowder's Collide album, but with a keyboard as the only accompanying instrument.

There obviously weren't a lot of "unchurched" people there that night. I don't know if there were ever really "unchurched" people at revivals in the past, even if there were a lot of people who wanted to be "saved" or people who hadn't been to church in a while. But, as I understand it, there wasn't really any competition for people's attention back then either (not as much on T.V., no internet, a less demanding evening schedule). Church was where stuff happened, and revivals were, sometimes, the only game in town. This past Monday night there were baseball games going on, board and business meetings, babies were crying, dinner was being made, people were working, but in this little corner of the world in Telogia, FL, the saints of Liberty Co. gathered in this simple sanctuary in the woods, and participated in something all together separate.

I can see why people used to sing songs like "Give Me That Old Time Religion." I used to think that was the most ridiculous song in the anthology of Christian Hymns. I thought "Come to the Church in the Wildwood" was cute and kind of fun, but the message struck me as self-centered, closed minded, fearful, etc. But in those old timey revivals and in those old songs there is a sense that what one is doing, as they worship, is truly "not of the world." The songs that were sung were at one time very much like the songs the world sang--many of our most loved hymns are set to secular melodies; some of which, I understand, were old bar songs. But, back in the day, when revivals were a more common occurrence, these old hymns and choruses gave a sense that the disciples of Jesus were being called out of the routine, called away from the contemporary, called out of meaninglessness, and partaking in something ancient and structured, something with roots, something out-of-the-ordinary, something bigger than the life they lived from day to day. And as they gathered in this spirit, in tiny corners of the world, having ripped themselves from the familiar, they were forced to focus on what is holy, what is eternal, the truth that gave their lives meaning and structure, something all together separate. They were joyful, they were reverent, they were inspired, they were connected. I think something like this was the purpose of the strange rituals of the Old Testament Law.

I don't think I will ever encourage the worship team where I serve to sing "Give Me That Old Time Religion," or insist that they take their cues from the revival meetings of the 50s & 60s. We can accomplish similar ends in a way that is more relevant to the culture in which we live. But I came away from that revival meeting focused, reverent, joyful, encouraged, inspired, challenged, longing to hold on to the eternal and the true, strengthened to go against the flow. Shouldn't this be the aim whenever the saints gather, no matter what tiny corner of the world they find themselves in?

If you know of one taking place near by, I encourage you to attend one of these old timey revivals. I know of one that takes place the week before Easter in Liberty Co., FL. Go with an open mind. Appreciate it for what it is. Expect to encounter something old and out-of the-ordinary, yet strangely familiar. Expect to be ripped from your normal day-to-day experiences. If you do, you will experience the blessing of something all together separate, something holy.

"Therefore come out from them and be separate, says the Lord."
-2 Corinthians 6:17 -


Dan White said...

Sorry to ramble. Hope you read it anyway.

Rhett and Leena said...

I read it and enjoyed it. I hope one day that even we crazy Mormons might be invited to the association.
You know, when I was 10-11 years old, I remember attending a summer service at that same chapel, coming up and accepting Christ right there. Of course, I'd already done that when I'd been baptized at age 8, but it felt good to re-confirm that acceptance.

Dan White said...

Thanks Rhett. That was a perfect addition to this post.

Shawn Grant said...

This sounds pretty awesome. Both the service and the association. Nicely done, good sir, nicely done.

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